What is a Carbon Footprint Explained in 60 Seconds with Images

Georgette Kilgore headshot, wearing 8 Billion Trees shirt with forest in the background.Written by Georgette Kilgore

Carbon Offsets Credits | July 31, 2023

Woman walking on top of a globe, wondering "what is a carbon footprint?"

Just what is a carbon footprint? In simplest terms, it is how much carbon pollution you are responsible for: how many greenhouse gases you generate.

Everyone has a carbon footprint, but each one is unique. Daily habits, where you live, and even the small choices you make all add up to your total carbon footprint. If you’re curious, you can also use a carbon footprint calculator to find out exactly how many tons of greenhouse gas emissions you create.

What Are Carbon Footprints: Why Should You Know Your Footprint?

A carbon footprint is a measurement of the amount of greenhouse gas emissions (predominantly carbon dioxide) that is generated by an individual, activity, or organization. It is measured in metric tons (or pounds) of carbon dioxide that are released into the atmosphere by some action, usually an energy related act…but almost everything generates some CO2.

For an individual, their carbon footprint is a measurement of the greenhouse gas emissions generated by their lifestyle. This includes driving a car (or riding in any vehicle that has an internal combustion engine), buying products, eating food, purchasing clothing, using anything that needs electricity, and much, much more.

The reality is most individuals cannot live on Earth without generating a carbon footprint. Knowing “what is a carbon footprint” can be explained by understanding how it’s calculated.

How To Use a Carbon Footprint Calculator in 60 Seconds

Over the past two decades, increased awareness concerning climate changes related to increased greenhouse gas emissions has helped spur the push to measure the carbon emissions that are generated by human existence. Because of this (among other results), the carbon footprint calculator became a mainstream tool and there are now many available online.

These calculators are designed to provide a rough estimate of how much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere to sustain your lifestyle.

Ideally, the concept is designed to help people make changes that reduce the emissions they create by illuminating the areas in life that produce the most CO2.

The process is really simple.

Step 1. Navigate to an online carbon footprint calculator.

Screenshot of 8 Billion Trees carbon ecological footprint calculator website with green arrow pointing to calculate button.

Step 2. Answer the questions about where you live.

Where you live impacts the amount of carbon emissions your lifestyle generates, mainly because the “per capita” amounts are figured this way:

All the carbon emissions generated by that specific country…divided by the number of people in the country.

Graphic showing county emissions as smoke plumes coming from isdutry buildings with China having the largest.

Many calculators ask you to choose the state where you live, if in the U.S. This is because power generation techniques vary throughout the United States.

Although many electricity plants are powered by coal in the Northeast, in Southern areas and near the Hoover Dam, residents get electricity generated by hydropower plants (water). Wind, nuclear and solar power are also used in various areas, so electric grids throughout the country have differing emissions factors.

Step 3. Indicate how many adults live in your household, and other household information, such as energy saving appliances and systems.

Green energy products and energy saving appliances can have a big impact on the amount of emissions that you produce. So when wondering “what is a carbon footprint?” know that energy use in the household is a primary part of the equation.

Home energy use percentage pie chart showing carbon footprint for various energy appliances.

Step 4. Indicate whether you have pets and the size of your home.

The size of your home impacts how much energy is required to keep it powered and climate controlled. Naturally, the larger the square footage (or square meters) means increased carbon footprint. Many people forget about pets when calculating what is a carbon footprint. Pet food, vet visits, and products combine to increase a person’s emissions.

Household carbon footprint graphc depicting varius items in the home and how much carbon they produce.

Step 5. Answer questions about how you use transportation and whether you take flights, or own recreational vehicles and watercraft.

Internal combustion engines generate carbon emissions when fuel is burned. So, boats, flights, and vehicle travel all have footprints associated with them.

Chart showing carbon emissions of types of airplanes ranging from small aircraft to large commerical jets.

Step 6. Answer questions about your spending habits.

Higher amounts of expendable income equate to higher carbon footprints, and your spending habits directly relate to your emissions. A recent Oxford study examined the link between income inequality and carbon emissions. Basically, higher income homes produce higher amounts of greenhouse gases, and the more wealth, the greater the footprint.

Step 7. Answer questions about your diet.

Food carbon footprint chart showing what is a carbon footprint aspect of diet.

Food footprints vary greatly. For example, beef and dairy products have a much higher emissions factor than fruits or veggies that are grown and sold locally. It’s even better for the planet if you grow your own.

What Does a Footprint Calculator Tell You?

Carbon footprint calculators give you as much information as you are willing to put into them. So, if you choose to enter your own, individualized data set rather than using averages, then you will get a more accurate picture of the amount of carbon emissions produced per year.

For instance, most calculators will ask that you enter, or select the closest estimate of, the amount of natural gas, electricity, fuel oil, and propane that you use in a year.

This information then feeds into the overall estimation of your carbon footprint.

The other primary sections of most questionnaires are transportation and waste. These are similarly applied to your overall carbon footprint.

For transportation, most calculators will ask you some form of these questions:

  • How many vehicles do you and other members of your household use?
  • How often do you perform maintenance on those vehicles?
  • On average, how many miles do you drive per year?
  • What is your vehicle’s average gas mileage?

And for waste, carbon footprint calculators will usually ask whether you recycle the following:

  • Aluminum and steel cans
  • Plastic
  • Glass
  • Newspapers
  • Magazines

If you did not mark any of these recyclables, most calculators will suggest that you begin recycling because it can have an impressive impact on your carbon footprint.

Chart showing landfill emissions for what is a carbon footprint.

Lowering Energy Use and Food Waste to Limit Carbon Emissions

Carbon footprints can be lessened in many ways, but some of the best involve either lowering – or lessening – your household’s energy usage and reducing the amount of food waste that ends up in the trash. Energy usage and waste disposal are two of the major carbon emitters associated with your footprint, so by focusing on these two areas of your life, you can help to reduce your household carbon footprint.

But that doesn’t mean it cannot be reduced through individual action.

But, while it is a good idea to lessen your own carbon emissions, it is important that you think of climate change as a challenge that can only be overcome through collective action. That means demanding better – real, tangible change – from the businesses and brands that you support. And sometimes that means buying from businesses that are founded on, and demonstrate their commitment to, sustainability, environmentalism, and the ethical and equitable treatment of their workers.

By reaching out and buying from these companies, you will already be on your way to reducing your carbon footprint and promoting a more sustainable relationship with the natural world.

Reduce Energy Use

There are many ways to reduce your energy usage and improve energy efficiency, it just depends on where you live and what appliances you own.

  • Turn off your devices when you aren’t using them. This might seem obvious, but one of the best ways to conserve energy is by simply switching your devices off. However, to avoid vampire loads (electricity used by a device when it is turned off) try to use advanced power strips which can cut power to specific outlets when those devices are powered down. You can also use a Smart Meter to reduce the amount of energy used by your always-on appliances like microwaves and televisions.
  • Turn off your interior lights on sunny days. Another obvious suggestion, but one that can have long term effects on your footprint.
  • Wash full loads of dishes or clothes. If you tend to rely on a dishwasher, try to wait until you have a full load before cycling the machine. The same is true for clothes. Additionally, you should try to use only cold water for your washing.
  • Handwash your dishes. While it is easy – and sometimes necessary – to use a dishwasher, it’s often more sustainable to wash dishes by hand. However, you should try to keep the taps turned off for as much of the dishwashing process as possible. So, fill a basin with warm, soapy water, and then only turn the tap back on when you’re ready to rinse of the soap suds.
  • Use power saver modes. Most devices can now be toggled to a power saver mode in which they limit the amount of energy being used on certain tasks. This is true for laptops, desktops, phones, and other electronics (though not always). When you can, turn this setting to “On.”
  • Do routine maintenance on your appliances. The best way to ensure that your electronics and other energy users are running efficiently is to perform routine maintenance on them. For instance, you should regularly check filters in heating and cooling systems and replace them when necessary.
  • Replace appliances and lights with energy-efficient alternatives. This step will not be accessible to everyone, but if you can afford it, it’s well worth doing and will substantially reduce the product carbon footprint.
  • You can also cut down on your energy usage and energy bills by better sealing windows and better insulating walls and attics for the winter months.

This is a non-comprehensive list of changes and as new data is made available to the public, new solutions will also emerge.

Reduce Food Waste

You can also make sustainable decisions to reduce wasted food at home.

According to the EPA, most people are largely unaware of the amount of food that they throw away per day. According to the Agency’s statistics, approximately 68 percent of the wasted food that is generated in a year (about 42.8 million tons) ends up in landfills. And, once it’s in a landfill, the biomass decomposition produces methane, the most harmful greenhouse gas.

The following suggestions can help you lower your footprint by reducing food waste:

  • Meal plan at the beginning of the week. This is the easiest way to cut down on wasted food. Before you buy food from a grocery store, decide with your household what meals you’d like to prepare for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You could also make a list of favorite snacks. This ensures that, when you do go to the store, you don’t buy unnecessary ingredients or foods, but instead buy exactly what you need for the rest of the week. Not only does this save on food waste, but it can also cut down on transportation emissions.
  • Additionally, when you go shopping, consider buying items that you use every week in bulk. Then, when you get home, you can store these foods as individual servings in reusable glass containers. Some weeks, you might not even have to go shopping if you buy enough of your favorite ingredients in this manner.
  • You can also look for ways to incorporate what you already have in the kitchen. There are plenty of creative recipes and websites out there that are designed to help you use up the random items you already have.
  • If you have lots of fruits or vegetables, try to freeze or preserve any surplus that you won’t use before it expires. Not only does this avoid unnecessary waste, but it gives you time to decide what to do with each ingredient.
  • If you find yourself with lots of surplus, consider donating it to a local food bank. That food will be used and appreciated by those who do not have a steady food supply.
  • You should also try to compost food scraps. If you are a gardener, composting is one of the absolute best ways to get rid of unwanted, biodegradable leftovers. Plus, there are plenty of guides on the internet to teach you how to get started. If you can, please give composting a try.
  • You can also plant your own vegetables. You don’t need a large space for a garden – vegetables can grow just as well in window planters or other small containers in an apartment.

By following some or all of these tips and tricks, you can make a big difference – not just to your footprint, but to the lives of other people.

Light bulb comparison between 60 watt and LED options that reduce carbon emissions by reducing energy use.

What Is the Difference Between a Carbon Footprint and an Ecological Footprint?

In some instances, you may hear others talk about their ecological footprint instead of their carbon footprint. But are these words interchangeable, or are they two separate ways of judging an individual’s affect upon the world?

If you guessed the latter, then you would be right. A person’s carbon footprint is not the same as their ecological footprint, although their ecological footprint is a function of their carbon footprint.

Often, a carbon footprint is reported as a part of a person’s ecological footprint. Essentially, the ecological footprint exists as a measurement of the resources (renewable and non-renewable) consumed by an individual through a year.

This then tells you how much biocapacity (a measurement of an ecosystems’ ability to create and absorb all biological materials used by humans) is needed to neutralize your effect upon the planet.

As other environmentalists have argued, this manner of visualizing the effects of your actions shows that climate change is just a component of the greater ecological threat that humanity faces. This includes overgrazing, deforestation, the extinction of species, and more. They are all being caused by the massive demand for resources that is being placed on the Earth by humanity.

According to the available data, the planet simply cannot sustain the level of consumption that is currently occurring.

Carbon Footprint Calculator Origins

The original carbon footprint calculator was created by an advertising firm working for British Petroleum. It was part of their campaign to place the responsibility on the individual consumer to enact progressive, eco-conscious change, while distancing themselves from the environmental effects of their product. It was a genius bit of propaganda.

However, the carbon footprint calculator has since been co-opted by more responsible, eco-conscious groups like the United State Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has created a readily accessible calculator that divides your daily activities – and their carbon emissions cost – into three categories: home energy, transportation, and waste.

And, the results are bearing fruit as more and more people use these calculators to identify ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Reducing Your Footprint

In addition to the ones listed above, there are many more ways to reduce your carbon footprint. For instance, even a small acts like buying zero waste products on things you use all the time (like laundry detergent and garbage bags), sustainable clothing, and unplugging your laptop can lower your footprint.

Additionally, you can consider offsetting your footprint. If you find that you cannot reduce your household’s footprint any further, you may want to look into offsets. Tree planting carbon offset strategies offer huge returns when done responsibility. And, this has become an increasingly popular method for large companies looking to reduce their own business carbon footprint.

That’s what this is all about: your choices have consequences, and when those choices are designed to limit your carbon emissions, then you are deciding to help the planet.

So, by asking ‘what is a carbon footprint,’ you are taking your first step towards a more sustainable, environmentally friendly lifestyle.